Conservatives go after Bruce Cumings new book on the American empire





'There is the East, there is India and China," said Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton in the Senate chamber in 1855—as he pointed over his shoulder due west.

Both the statement and the paradoxical gesture neatly sum up the argument of "Dominion From Sea to Sea." Bruce Cumings traces American history along its inexorable drive westward, not merely to California and the limits of the continent's frontier but all the way to the Pacific Rim. He argues that such westward outreach has transformed America's character and helped to write its destiny, if not always for the good. "I chant the world on my Western sea," Walt Whitman sang in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. "I chant the new empire, greater than any before." The American story, in Mr. Cumings's telling, starts at Plymouth Rock and finishes well beyond Silicon Valley—in Okinawa, Hiroshima and, not least, the trading desks of Shanghai banks, where U.S. Treasurys are not routinely bought and sold.

To make his case, Mr. Cumings, the chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, has produced a sprawling narrative, with shifting subthemes and flashes back and forth in time. His references range widely, from John Winthrop, Ben Franklin and George Santayana to the movie "Gidget Goes Hawaiian," the comic strip "Li'l Abner" and the sexually infamous 1991 Tailhook Convention. He has only bilious things to say about Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and clearly accepts the views of leftist historians, like Howard Zinn and Ronald Takaki, who are eager to indict the U.S., past and present, for racism, imperialism and genocide. Still, Mr. Cumings is rather bullish on the American experiment.

Mr. Cumings concedes that "the idea of a two-ocean entity" was not merely the fond hope of the 19th century's champions of Manifest Destiny. Rather, it "existed from the start" of the republic. The two-ocean idea pulled America's original Europeanized character into a more creative shape, and a push westward to the Orient created constantly shifting horizons—and new problems to overcome. In the end, Mr. Cumings has to confess that conservatives may have a point. There is indeed an American exceptionalism, and it works...


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